Consciousness: A Hindu Perspective: Brahman, Purusha, and Prakriti

The capacity for awareness and experience, for logical analysis and joyful interaction constitutes the intangible component in the fleeting persistence of Homo sapience. This is the essence of what we call the human spirit. Just as there is more to a flower than soil and tree-branch, the spirit is more than neural network, heartbeat and vital breath, though these are what create and sustain it here below.
How are we to explain these extraordinary features of human consciousness in relation to its temporal and spatial insignificance? How can we comprehend the fact that to none but the human brain the universe is comprehensible? Science’s suggestion that evolution led to this extraordinarily powerful complexity is one persuasive hypothesis, and it has found ample observational support.
The sage-poets of Hinduism who probed into the ultimate nature and roots of consciousness, arrived at a startlingly different conclusion. If the splendor of the perceived world and the pattern in its functioning can result in the grand experiences of life and thought, then even prior to the advent of humans, there must have been a consciousness of a vastly superior order, an Experiencer Who spanned the range in space and time. This undergirding cosmic principle is the Brahman in Hindu vision. Moreover, our consciousness is but an echo of something of far grander dimensions. Expressed through the pithy Upanishadic aphorism, tat tvam asi: Thou art That, the Hindu vision is that every conscious entity is a spark from an underlying effulgence, and flashes its radiance as its source alone can.
Just as the expanse of water in the seas is scattered all over land in ponds, lakes and rivers, all-embracing Brahman finds expression in countless life forms. We are miniature lights, one and all. We have emanated from that primordial effulgence, like photons from a glorious galactic core, destined for the terrestrial experience for a brief span on the eternal time line, only to re-merge with that from which we sprang.
Brahman, the Ground-stuff, subdivides itself into purusha, the cosmic consciousness, and prakriti or Nature. These are the experiencer and the experienced, not unlike the res cogens and the res extensa of Descartes. Prakriti is now bifurcated into animate and the inanimate realms with only a fuzzy dividing line separating them. On the other hand, purusha separates out into countless jîvâtmans or individual units of consciousness which fuse into the mind and body of the animate branch of prakriti. The conscious jîvatman endeavors to recognize its source, namely purusha, through religion and spirituality, and tries to understand prakriti through science.
Is this poetic imagery, scientific hypothesis, or perhaps the ultimate Truth? If it be poetry, we recall that poetry and prayer are for the human spirit what the telescope and the microscope are for human eyes. Lenses enable us to discern entities beyond our normal recognition, and profound poetry is a response of the spirit to that which is not fathomed through logic and reason. Poetry brings home to us, indeed it forces us to reckon, the world of experience, not in terms of sense data and charts and proofs, but in subtle and holistic ways. It reveals meaning and majesty in the universe, which lie in a realm beyond the plane of rigid rationality. Poetry is mystic insight verbalized.
The Hindu spiritual vision paints individual consciousness on a cosmic canvas. It recognizes the transience of us all as separate entities, yet incorporates us into the infinity that encompasses us. It does not rule out the possibility of other manifestations of Brahman, sublime and subtle, carbon or silicon-based, elsewhere amidst the stellar billions. It recognizes the role of matter, and the limits of the mind, but sees subtle spirit at the core of everything. It does not speak of rewards and punishments in anthropocentric terms, or of a He-God communicating in local languages. Yet, it regards the religious expressions of humanity as echoes of the Universal Spirit, even as volcanic outbursts reveal submerged forces of far greater magnitude.

July 31, 2007

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Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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